For many years, I circled around the issue of the colour of my skin being a point of difference in the workplace. Growing up, it wasn’t something we talked about much at home. It was simply an unspoken truth that I saw evidence of in everyday life.
I watched my parents fight to be where they are today, overcoming the barriers that came with their skin colour, migrant status and visible accents. I watched them carry themselves with dignity everywhere they went, maintain their integrity and prove others wrong time after time. Needless to say, it made me proud. It also made me believe that I too could overcome the challenges that came with being a minority in the corporate world.
The only one in the room
Then came my turn. Ripe out of my graduating from my bachelor’s degree and itching to get into the workforce, I started my career in professional services. In the early years, I didn’t notice the nuances in how I was treated relative to the person next to me. Perhaps it was because I was born and raised in Australia, so I spoke like them and I thought like them. Apart from the glaringly obvious fact that my skin colour was different, I wasn’t a stand-out for any other reason.
As my exposure increased, I began to see it. Being in the financial services industry, I often found myself being not just the only black woman in the room but the only black person, period. It was something I was proud of yet a disappointing reality. Where were my fellow colleagues of African descent? Over time, I grew to appreciate the smiles and nods on the rare occasion I would notice another in the lobby of the office building or in the kitchen during a lunch break.
Let’s talk about it
When I found myself in conversations with others about race, which were few and far between, I was often met with “but I don’t see colour” or a comment that it was a non-issue. But they didn’t see the looks of apprehension on that CEO’s face as I walked into the room to offer him advice. They didn’t see the mere seconds it would take for the camera to appear before me at an industry event. They didn’t see how you had to work twice as hard to receive the same recognition as your white peer.
Why am I telling you this? Because though much is being said by our American comrades, racial discrimination isn’t spoken about enough in Australia. Especially in corporate Australia. The spotlight has been on diversity of late, yet we seem to forget that diversity is more than gender. It’s more than sexual orientation.
Ethnicity shouldn’t hold us back; it should propel us forward.
What you can do
If you’re a leader in the workplace, lead by example. Take note of any biases you may have that you previously dismissed. Give a voice to and support the minorities within your team who are afraid to speak for fear of difference of opinion.
If you don’t carry the official title of “leader”, you too can make a difference. Start the conversation with a colleague who is comfortable to share their experience with you. Be ready to stand by them, stick up for them and highlight any inappropriate behaviours toward them.
The time for change is now. Let’s not wait another decade before we see substantial change. I’m stepping outside my comfort zone and playing my part by sharing my story. You can too.